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Maternal Perspectives on the Preservation of Children’s Health and Wellbeing in

Eighteenth-Century Elite Society


This thesis is a reappraisal of domestic heath care for children during the Georgian period.

It reconstructs events from the perspective of contemporary mothers rather than from the

perspective of those high-profile physicians and pedagogues who sought to discredit

female care during this period, and whose discourse has dominated the historiographical

landscape ever since. It argues that many of the childcare practices which have been

labelled as cruel, selfish, and ignorant by emerging medical standards (such as swaddling,

straightening, cold water bathing, purging, vomiting, bleeding, and low diets) were not

only continued, but significantly stepped up across the period. This does not mean that

mothers belligerently flouted professional advice or that they were ignorant of

contemporary medical knowledge. Indeed, the admonishments handed out by the likes of Cadogan and Rousseau failed to resonate with mothers whose existing methods were not only endorsed by contemporary medical professionals but frequently replicated in medical advice literature. A continued adherence – amongst mothers and medical professionals alike – to the age-old model of pathology, therapy and hygienic medicine drawn from classical humoral theory, saw mothers meticulously managing their children’s diet, exercise, air, and excretions as a means of preventing disease and deformity. By relocating adult concern for children’s physical welfare in its most obvious place – with mothers – this thesis provides a new perspective on domestic childcare in the pre-modern era, and addresses a significant and long-standing disconnect between the histories of parenting and medicine. It is a cultural, gender, medical, and social history with wider implications for the history of science, medicine, family, female agency, and rationality. 


1st Supervisor: Anna Maerker

2nd Supervisor: Rowan Boyson




As a social and cultural historian of medicine and as a mother myself, I am interested in what took place at the intersection of medicine and parenting – especially in the so-called ‘enlightened’ age where broad shifts in science and philosophy are said to have brought about more ‘rational’ modes of child-rearing. My work not only seeks to contextualise past practice more adequately, but to assess the extent of mothers’ knowledge and authority against a male collective that ostensibly sought to marginalise their input. Many of my findings offer interesting historical perspectives to modern controversies such as current debates about breastfeeding, alternative medicine, and vaccination.




Esfandiary, H. (2019), ‘We could not answer to ourselves not doing it’: maternal obligations and knowledge of smallpox inoculation in eighteenth‐century elite society. Hist Res, 92: 754-770. 


‘In God’s Hands: Inoculating the Royal Children against Smallpox.’ Official Georgian Papers Programme blog post to mark the release of medical papers among the 65,000 items in the Royal Archive and Royal Library relating to the Georgian period, 1714-1837.


Papers Given/Exhibitions/Public engagement:


August 2018 – Female Networks: Gendered Ways of Producing Knowledge (1750-1830) King’s College London. Paper: ‘‘‘A Thankless Enterprise’’ Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Campaign to Introduce Smallpox Inoculation into Eighteenth-century Elite Society.’


Sept 2018 – Queen Charlotte and her Legacy: A Study Day Jointly organised by The National Archives and Historic Royal Palaces. Paper: ‘Responsibilities of Royal Motherhood: Protecting the Royal Children against Smallpox.’


April 2019 – Life Cycles Seminar Institute of Historical Research. Paper: ‘We could not answer to ourselves not doing it’: Maternal Obligations and Knowledge of Smallpox Inoculation in Eighteenth-Century Elite Society.’ This paper was subsequently awarded the 2019 Pollard prize.


May 2019 – Mechanical Medicine. Exploring the History of Healing by Exercise, Manipulation, and Massage. Science Museum Symposium, London. Paper: ‘Correcting and Preventing Deformities in Georgian Children.’


June 2019 – Georgian Papers Programme Works-in-Progress Session on Material Culture. Paper: ‘I am sorry Sweet Miss Williams wants a collar and a backboard but so it is: The trend towards seeking ‘mechanical fixes’ for childhood deformities in Georgian Society.’


July 2019 – ISECS International Congress on the Enlightenment at the University of Edinburgh on 14–19 July 2019. Paper: ‘All day out of doors’: contemporary perspectives on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s system for encouraging healthy, robust and disease-free constitutions in late eighteenth-century elite Britain. 


Nov 2019 – QMUL, Maternal Influences in the Medieval and Early Modern World. Paper: ‘A little Tin and Wormseed with a bitter Purge or two carried ‘em all off’: maternal approaches to ridding Eighteenth-century children of threadworms.’


Jan 2020 – BSECS 49th Annual Conference Natural, Unnatural and Supernatural, St Hugh's College, University of Oxford. Panel session: ‘Writing Doctors: Managing Health and Medical Discourse in Print and Practice.’


June 2020 – Writing Doctors International Conference, Writing Health from the Eighteenth Century to the Twenty-First. Paper: ‘Fetch me Tissot ‘tis the better book’: Maternal consumption of ‘self-help’ medical literature in elite Georgian Britain.’ Cancelled due to COVID.


June 2020 – Institute of Historical Research Life Cycles Seminar Roundtable: Pandemics/Epidemics and the Life Cycle. Paper: ‘A Leap of Faith: Maternal Perspectives on Smallpox Inoculation in early 18th Century English Society. Held online.


July 2020 – Cambridge Body and Food Histories Summer Conference: The Ideal Body: Perceptions of Perfection from Early Modernity to the Present. Paper: ‘‘‘For Girls that are Crooked or Inclined to be so’: Correcting Postural Deformities in Georgian Children.’ Held online.


August 2020 – Durham, Reconsidering Illness and Recovery in the Early Modern World Conference. Paper: ‘Managing Smallpox: Elite Georgian Mothers and the Making of an Elite Method of Inoculation.’ Held online.

Recent Grants, Awards, and Prizes: 


  • 2017-2020 The Professor Sir Richard Trainor PhD Scholarship Scheme King’s College London. £15,000 per year for three years.

  • 2020 Roy Porter Essay Prize runner up, SSHM for essay: ‘Nurture Prevailes more than Nature’: The Role of Preventative Medicine in Early Modern Child-Rearing. 

  • 2019 Pollard Prize, IHR for paper ‘We could not answer to ourselves not doing it’: Maternal Obligations and Knowledge of Smallpox Inoculation in Eighteenth-Century Elite Society.’

  • 2019 King’s Education Award for Sustained Excellence 2018-2019. Teaching first year module: Early Modern Britain. 

  • 2017 MA Early Modern History Prize for dissertation: ‘How medical knowledge of the body during the period 1545-1700 shaped domestic child-care practice.’

Other professional affiliations and activities: 


I am a member of the Royal Historical Society, and a Convener for the Lifecycles Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research. I am also a Fellow of The Georgian Papers Programme, a partnership between the Royal Collection Trust and King's College London dedicated to interpreting the Georgian Papers held at The Royal Archives and the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.

Helen Esfandiary photo.png
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